While rumours persist about an unprecedented economic crisis, not a day that goes by that we do not hear about a new means of payment or new currencies. While we can rejoice in the wealth of creativity made possible by scientific and technological innovations, we may wonder about the social consequences.
Libra: a competitor to the state or a new potential monopoly?
While the cryptocurrency chorus has been continuing for a few years now and Bitcoin is constantly fluctuating, Facebook has announced the imminent launch of its Libra (the press conference is scheduled for tomorrow) and big names such as Visa and Mastercard seem to be supporting the initiative. A cryptocurrency expert, Philippe Herlin, author of the excellent little manual J’achète du Bitcoin [I buy Bitcoin] sees it as an excellent competitor to state currencies:
“Public debt, printing money and zero interest rate disease are gradually destroying the yen, euro and dollar,” he says. “We can legitimately worry about these currencies and their banking systems, because there is too much debt, too much leverage effect in banks. Many emerging countries are affected by inflation, devaluation, exchange controls, authoritarianism and state arbitrariness, with Venezuela being an extreme and symbolic case. And it should also be noted that almost half of the world’s population does not have a bank account.”
However, this solution is far from being unanimously accepted and other digital experts see it as another reason to dismantle the giant Facebook. In France, for example, Gilles Babinet, Vice-President of the National Digital Council, states
“Facebook must be dismantled: it is this cryptocurrency project, its Swiss foundation, the integration with Insta, Whatsapp, Messenger, etc. which have convinced me that Facebook has no limit to its will to develop and ultimately dominate.”
The idea of competing with the state monopoly by offering a currency and a means of payment to two billion people is fascinating – if we remember that fascination is a mixture of fear and admiration – but begs certain questions. There is no doubt that Facebook could in turn swiftly impose its own monopoly on its users. At the same time, if this were to happen, they would certainly go elsewhere and that is much less frightening than what follows.
Doconomy and Sesame Credit: payment on a custom basis, or in kind?
The Chinese government’s social credit project was unveiled in 2014. Now optional, this system is supposed to become mandatory for all Chinese citizens by 2020. Sesame Credit, as it is known, was developed by the giant Tencent and it allows citizens to accumulate good or bad points according to their social behaviour, taking some inspiration from the “US Credit Score” which scores citizens based on their loan repayment habits. A Gamification system allows individuals, if they behave well, to have additional credits they can spend and to be rewarded in general. On the other hand, those who adopt a deviant attitude towards the expectations stipulated by the doctrine of the government in power will see their score decrease; thus, for example, they will be punished by being allocated worse seats on transport or at concerts, etc. The idea of the designers of this system is to improve the market economy. Of course, this has inevitably provoked reactions from NGOs, as they see it as a way of increasing control over the population. So, patriots who praise the regime will be rewarded. It is understandable that this hybrid system, based on both the means of payment and currency (one uses one’s reputation as an exchange value), is more about state control of the population than market liberalization.
In a completely different register, but which, in many respects, has considerable similarities, the Doconomy credit card, launched by a Swedish start-up, has just created a real buzz. For Novethic media, which sees it as a “playful” means of payment: “This is the first credit card to calculate your carbon footprint based on the purchases you make. Instead of introducing a premium credit card with benefits that generally encourage increased consumption, the black DO has only one essential feature: a carbon cap,’ the start-up explains. We should specify that while the “white card” only informs, the “Black card” permits a block on users who have exceeded the authorized carbon limit. Here, with this card, we are dealing with a proactive approach, unlike the “social credit” system. Another difference is that social credit rewards, but Doconomy sanctions. There is nothing wrong with that as long as it is a matter of individual choice.
But what would happen if this means of payment were to be transposed to the state level and made mandatory? What consequences could this have at all levels and in particular on the development of social behaviour? As Laurent Alexandre noted in a tweet:
“It would favour people without children: having a baby is catastrophic for your CO2 balance. The West will see an acceleration of its demographic SUICIDE! ”
We see the relentless mechanism that could be put in place behind this system. The aim being to control the behaviour of individuals using algorithms, as in the example of China. This does have something of the idea that a scientific model, emerging from the thinking of climatologists, will have to determine the future of society. This goes beyond science and scientific ecology to the political and ideological level. Also, as the philosopher Drieu Godefridi pointed out, there is a totalitarian aspect behind environmentalism that brings us back to Renan’s scientism when we believed with utter conviction that science could “organize society”. So why call a halt to this excellent progress to imagine the next step? The one where individuals are allocated CO2 quotas from birth to spend during their lifetime?
As we can see, these two apparently very different means of payment have one thing in common: controlling citizens and imposing models they have to follow. Behind each of the algorithms there is an unstoppable mechanism: the credit card user no longer has any freedom, he conforms to the model set by intergovernmental agencies, the same is true for the Chinese citizen who feels obliged to follow government directives.
Cryptocurrencies: towards more freedom?
Fortunately, in this novelty contest for “the algorithm that will best reinvent trade”, cryptocurrencies seem to present themselves as solutions for more freedom. Philippe Herlin wondered: “Is Bitcoin a perfect currency? You might think so when we list its characteristics: it is universal, accessible to all (all you need is an Internet connection), it is not under the control of any State or company, it is totally independent of the banking system, self-regulated, secure and its monetary creation is controlled and limited. Bitcoin also suddenly solves all the problems related to raw material money: authenticity of transactions, instantaneous exchanges, divisibility, homogeneity, storage.” He adds to these many qualities that no fake Bitcoin has ever been created and that it is at the crossroads of three schools of thought: the defenders of free software, the thinkers who emphasize the importance of counterpowers and finally the Austrian school.” The author reviews the creativity of the blockchain designers and the many cryptocurrency systems that regularly emerge.
It is clear from the qualities set out for this last example that we have here a technological solution that really posits itself as a benefit to trade, a tool that individuals can use for more freedom, and not yet another hidden political control enterprise behind an innovative algorithm.
 “There is, in fact, not a single test nor a human activity that does not generate CO2. Transport, heating, buildings, industry, economy and even just breathing: CO2 emissions are part and parcel of the very concept of being human. Whoever controls CO2 controls everything,” noted the American physicist Richard Lindzen: this truth – scientific, as it goes – is the foundation of the empire, totalitarian in its own way, of contemporary environmentalism. ” Drieu Godefridi, in L’Écologisme nouveau totalitarisme ? [Environmentalism, the new totalitarianism?] Éditions Texquis, p. 53.
 Philippe Herlin, J’achète du bitcoin Eyrolles, p. 20.